Saturday, July 25, 2015

The problem with virtual reality

As a member of the 'maker' community I'd like to reflect on why reality is better than virtual reality.

True, programming for apps is all the rage., among other organizations, like Eleven Fifty here in Indianapolis, make the case that every child should learn computer science.  I did.  Coding is cool.  It allows you to control a little machine, which, can be connected to a large machine, the Internet or even a human being.  These little machines are cheap and the software is free.  Learning to code requires study, concentration and cleverness.  What's not to love?

The problem I see is that these little virtual worlds don't have to interact with the real world.  The real world - reality - is a far more complicated place than manufactured worlds.  How do I know this?  Just try to make something.

Drilling holes, assembling components, building anything forces you to interact in a reality zone where inconvenient facts intersect with your ideal design.  Ninety degrees becomes 89.5 degrees.  Parallel isn't.  Attachments and joints wiggle.  Inertial effects impose themselves when gravity and motion affect structures.  Algebra turns into calculus.

Problems may be dismissed or their effects postponed in a virtual world.  You can ignore tolerances and stacking errors in these ideal places.  Not so in your garage.  Sawing pieces of wood intended to form the sides of a box, (a simple rectangle morphs into a parallelogram,) is humbling.  A craftsman's skill is not earned in a semester at a coding academy.

Coding encapsulates its own reality.  In the virtual world of a micro-controller the 'state-machine' executes instructions with predictable efficiency.  The machines were designed by humans with economy and utility in mind. The goal is to simplify problems and optimize predictability.

Reality, on the other hand, is anything but predictable.  'Making things' as it turns out exposes the designer to a plethora of unexpected problems: material properties, dimensional inconsistencies, variable loads, unanticipated defects, supply issues, finishing, light, shadows, static electricity.  There is no order to these problems because in the real world there is no order to the problems.  That's why it's called the REAL WORLD!

With all due respect to my friends in the software business, you deserve the billions of dollars you make moving bits around to the endless entertainment of consumers hungry for vicarious stimulation.  But as for me, I'd rather be making something.